Three local TV stations putting trash on Facebook.

As Gay Adelmann pointed out, three local Louisville stations posted their own versions of the exact same story today.

All three of these are “news” reports about a Texas woman’s Facebook post. Yes, three-fourths of our local stations felt the need to report a story about a random woman’s social media thoughts.

But it’s not just our local stations that saw fit to share this “story.” If you type “texas woman cotton complaint” into Google, you find that dozens and dozens of local “news” stations and websites have done the same thing.

Adelmann called the story both “click bait” and “race bait,” and I think her assessment is accurate. All you have to do is briefly skim the comment sewers on any of these sites to see that the articles are deliberate attempts to provoke a certain demographic that is highly likely to watch local TV news — older, less educated conservatives.

So what does this incident tell us about local TV news outlets and their behavior on social media?

  1. Their performance on social media has nothing to do with newsworthiness and everything to do with clicks, shares, likes, interactions, and so forth. (Another perfect case study for this: WLKY’s awful Twitter feed.)
  2. They are more than willing to stoke racial tensions and encourage the worst types of internet commenters by posting pointless, insignificant stories like this.
  3. They are imitators, not innovators. Look how many “news” outlets posted this story on their websites. They saw it go viral for other organizations and they wanted some of those eyeballs.

I should add that this doesn’t just happen with non-news stories that appeal to conservatives — it also happens with liberals. For just one example, take a look at this On the Media report about liberals’ susceptibility to Russia conspiracy theories.

If you encounter stories like these on social media, you should do the following:

  1. Fact-check the story. Was the story told on multiple news outlets? Was it confirmed by outlets that are ideologically different from (or even opposed to) the original source? Was it confirmed by multiple name-brand, known-quantity outlets, or by a bunch of websites you’ve never heard of?
  2. Let’s say you’ve fact-checked it and it turns out to be true. Then ask yourself: Why are the news outlets publishing this story? Is it truly newsworthy? Will it have any actual impact on your life? Or is it just reinforcing your own beliefs about the world?
  3. So the story may be true, but it’s not really newsworthy. Now what? It’s easy: Don’t share this crap. Don’t click like, or share, or retweet, or whatever. If possible, hide it in your feed. Not only are you doing yourself a favor, you’re doing the rest of us a favor too — because social media companies use your participation to justify inserting that story into everybody else’s feed. If you don’t participate, that works against those types of stories. So don’t indulge. Move on.

According to NYT, the concept of false balance “masquerades as rational thinking”

Unbelievably, New York Times public editor Liz Spayd declared yesterday that one of the most widespread critiques of mainstream news media doesn’t even qualify as “rational thought,” and is in fact a sneaky partisan attack.

Keep in mind that this is the same newspaper that, two months ago, ran a Paul Krugman column in which Krugman diagnosed false balance (also known as false equivalence, “both sides do it,” or “bothsidesism” as Krugman labels it) as the reason that Donald Trump remains competitive in polls.

Spayd is troubled by charges of “false balance” because the New York Times has run many investigations into Hillary Clinton’s email server scandal, and many readers have written in complaining that the NY Times is, in the words of one reader, “drinking the false equivalency Kool-Aid.”

As someone who receives the print version of the New York Times, I can say that there are, on average, two to three anti-Trump pieces in the paper every day. Frequently they are front page news stories, but there are also anti-Trump editorials and op-eds as well as lengthier articles deeper in the paper. If readers think the NYT treats Trump and Clinton as equally bad choices, then readers are wrong. The New York Times is clearly devoted to reporting all of Trump’s errors, gaffes, stumbles, fumbles and faux pas.

That said, Spayd overreaches in her column when she declares that “the problem with false balance doctrine is that it masquerades as rational thinking.” There is nothing irrational about critiquing the news media’s (at best irritating and at worst grossly irresponsible) tendency to seek balance. After all, that is precisely what journalists are trained to do, and if they do it poorly that means they were trained poorly as novices and edited poorly as professionals.

Furthermore, false balance tends to show up far more often in commentary than in coverage. Here is an excellent case study from the New York Times’ own David Brooks, appearing on NPR’s All Things Considered on Friday:

BROOKS: [Trump] was saying things – as E.J. pointed out – which were just ridiculous – the support for Putin, the oil comment, the idea that we should leave back some core of people and take Iraq’s oil is moral idiocy. First of all, it wouldn’t work. Second of all, it’s called imperialism. And it’s been done and it didn’t work, and it’s an outrage. And it sort of goes under the radar because he’s just ill-informed about what it would actually take.

She was just as bad, but in a different way. She’s certainly well-informed, but she was so ungracious and so unpleasant and so evasive that I think on style points, which matter a lot in these sort of things, she showed just tremendous vulnerability.

So you see, Trump’s ideas and policies are “ridiculous” and “moral idiocy” and an “outrage” and “ill-informed,” but Clinton was “ungracious” and “evasive” so she was “just as bad.”

That’s false equivalency. Krugman correctly diagnoses the problem, Brooks gives us a textbook example of it, and Spayd says that pointing out this journalistic error is irrational and partisan. Go figure.

InsiderLouisville columns

November 20 2014

http://insiderlouisville.com/business/inside-local-media-wfpl-reporters-depart-amid-newsroom-turmoil/

December 18 2014

http://insiderlouisville.com/metro/pressmatters-assessing-news-value-social-media-comments/

February 3 2015

http://insiderlouisville.com/opinion/press-matters-tragedy-amplified-confusion-murder-victims-gender-identity/

May 5 2015

http://insiderlouisville.com/metro/communities/press-matters-the-term-officer-involved-shooting-is-a-euphemism-journalists-should-avoid/

July 2, 2015

http://insiderlouisville.com/metro/communities/press-matters-local-media-not-guilty-of-stoking-anti-police-sentiment-for-higher-ratings/

August 4, 2015

http://insiderlouisville.com/metro/press-matters-journalists-have-no-business-doing-pr-for-the-powerful/

March 3, 2016

http://insiderlouisville.com/metro/press-matters-media-misses-biggest-story-of-trump-rally/

WFPL Columns

Here is a complete list of all the WFPL columns I published from February 2013 to August 2014.

Book reviews

Here are links to all the reviews I’ve written for the Courier-Journal since 2012.

  • Review of Mario Livio, Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013) in the Courier-Journal, 13 September 2013.
  • Review of Alex Stone, Fooling Houdini, Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind. (New York: Harper, 2012) in the Courier-Journal, 26 July 2013.
  • Review of Elena Passarello, Let Me Clear My Throat: Essays. (Louisville: Sarabande Books, 2012) in the Courier-Journal, 19 April 2013.
  • Review of Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. (New York: Nation Books, 2012) in the Courier-Journal, 8 March 2013.
  • Review of Al Smith, Kentucky Cured: Fifty Years in Kentucky Journalism. (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2012) in the Courier-Journal, 4 January 2013.
  • Review of Hedrick Smith, Who Stole the American Dream? (New York: Random House, 2012), in the Courier-Journal, 18 January 2012.
  • Review of Gene Robinson, God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage. (New York: Vintage, 2013) in the Courier-Journal, 19 October 2012.
  • Review of Tony Wagner, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. (New York: Scribner, 2012) in the Courier-Journal, 7 September 2012.
  • Review of Dale Carpenter, Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012) in the Courier-Journal, 29 June 2012.

Local media critics: a rare species

I’ve been really enjoying my gig with WFPL. During his interview with me, Jonathan Bastian asked me where I get my ideas for columns, and I said that it was all too easy: not only do friends and acquaintances regularly suggest ideas, but local news media (especially television) is an endless source of opportunities for media criticism. All I have to do is watch the local news for a few days or peruse their websites.

But I’ve noticed that I seem to be in a class of one. Despite my best Google-fu techniques, I can’t find any other examples of working local media critics in the United States. As Gabe Bullard wrote in the introduction to my first column, “in cities like Louisville, media criticism has gone the way of afternoon papers and Saturday mail.” The Courier-Journal fired its critic Tom Dorsey back in 2008. Perhaps I am the last of my kind?

A new gig at WFPL; conservatives & the CJ

I now have a freelance position as WFPL’s media critic. My first column about the lack of student perspectives in local media coverage has already been posted. Because I submit my writing for the WFPL staff to post instead of posting it myself, the gap between writing and posting is long (several days — an eternity in news time), which means I’m not able to quickly comment on Louisville news media events as they happen. For instance, the resignation of John David Dyche brought up a lot of issues about the definition of censorship, media dominance, and the obligations of local media.

From my perspective, it seems that many (but not all) conservative critics of the Courier-Journal are not upset that the newspaper is biased, but that it has a specifically liberal bias. These particular critics demand that the CJ publish more conservative columnists, even though it already carries George Will, Thomas Sowell, and Cal Thomas. They demand that the CJ stop publishing its own editorial opinions (something every newspaper around the United States does) and start publishing conservative editorial opinions. Nevermind that the CJ’s letters to the editor are routinely conservative; nevermind that the CJ routinely publishes conservative political cartoons. The idea is not just that bias must be eliminated, but that all liberal thought must be eliminated.

Having read Dyche’s rejected column, I’m not sure why the Courier refused to publish it. The public reasons given by Platt seem insufficient and inconsistent. That said, I’m also not sure why Dyche quit. He should have given his column to another local media outlet and then made a public stink about it until the CJ either apologized or severed their relationship. It hurt his case (and his cause) for Dyche to take his ball and go home.

Now imagine the same situation in reverse: suppose Thomas Frank wrote a scathing column critiquing the Wall Street Journal, the WSJ refused to publish it, and Thomas Frank stormed off in a huff. How would the conservative world react? “Too bad,” they would say. “It’s their newspaper and they have a right to control their content. If you don’t like it, start your own newspaper!”

And that’s exactly what I would say to John David Dyche and the conservatives of the Metro Louisville area: start your own newspaper. If you sincerely believe that the Courier-Journal is out of touch and out of tune with the mindset of area residents, then what an incredible opportunity this is for you to start your own print version of Fox News and attract all those angry former CJ subscribers. As Glenn Beck discovered, there’s gold in them thar hills!